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May 14, 2012

Out of Left Field

On Hitting .400

by Matthew Kory

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April and May are Crazy Stat Months (copyright 2012… ah, never mind). Josh Hamilton is slugging .877, and on pace for 94 home runs. Emilio Bonifacio could steal 80 bases if he continues like this, and at this rate Adam Dunn will strike out over a million times*. Hamilton’s 94-homer thing is clearly nuts, as it would best Bonds’ single season mark by 21. His slugging percentage would be a record as well, though not by such a substantial margin. Bonds slugged .863 in 2001, the year he hit 73 homers, and Babe Ruth slugged .847 and .846 in 1920 and 1921, respectively. Plus, who but us pudding-eating basement dwellers pays attention to slugging percentage? Dunn’s 1 million strikeouts won’t happen because I made them up. And who cares, relatively speaking, about stealing 80 bases nowadays? Boooooring.

* It’s really 234 strikeouts for Dunn. I added an extra 999,766 for emphasis.

All of those marks are probably unattainable (or uninteresting; here’s looking at you, Emilio). Does anyone really think Josh Hamilton is going to hit 90 home runs? I don’t*.

* He could hit 89 though.

Here is something else he’s doing that is equally silly: hitting .400. Hamilton is hitting .402, in fact. The last time a player finished the season with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title and a batting average over .400, it was 1941. You could buy a car for under $1,000, and a house would run you about seven times that. It was a while ago. Ted Williams finished with a .406 batting average that year after going six for eight in a final-day doubleheader. The mark was so impressive that about 50 years later they named some crappy seats at Fenway Park after it. Sadly, the crappiness of the seats and the lure of corporate dollars eventually outweighed the impressiveness of Williams’ ’41 season, and the seats were reconfigured and renamed.

But even the loss of the .406 Club hasn’t diminished Williams’ accomplishment. With each passing year we look back at that season with just a bit more reverence and think how incredible hitting .400 was. The thing, though, is at the time it wasn’t nearly as big a deal. Twenty-eight different player-seasons have resulted in a batting average above .400. Thirteen of those seasons came before 1900 when you got credit for a hit for the following:

  • Walking
  • Getting hit by a pitch
  • Getting drunk
  • Punching an opposing player in the face
  • Punching an opposing fan in the face
  • Getting really drunk
  • Certain types of drooling

The remaining 15 seasons came between the years 1901 and 1941. That means that on average someone ended up hitting .400 a bit more than once every three years. How big a deal would hitting .400 be if Ichiro had done it in 2009? And before that in 2006? And Tony Gwynn had done it every year between 1982 and 1987? Probably still a big deal, but not quite the same thing. Rarity makes things more impressive. Like old Spanish coins or diseases that make your butt cheeks fall off.

It’s been seven decades since anyone hit .400, but when Williams did it, Bill Terry had hit .401 just 11 years ago in 1930. During the 1920s, a hitter-friendly decade to the point of ridiculousness, a player ended the year hitting over .400 seven different times. Hitting .400 was so unimpressive in 1941 that despite hitting .406/.553/.735, Williams didn’t win the MVP. He didn’t even come particularly close. Joe DiMaggio, whose slash line of .357/.440/.643 was also incredible if not the equal of Williams’ work, won it with two-thirds of the vote. Why did the voters pick DiMaggio over Williams? Jolt’n Joe had hits in 56 consecutive games that year, which is just more interesting. So, yeah. Congrats, Ted. Yawn.

Hitting .400 is in a select group of baseball records thought to be unattainable, along with a 57-game hitting streak, three consecutive no-hitters, and 2,633 consecutive games played. If you had asked a knowledgeable fan in 1983 which was more likely to happen, hitting .400 or besting Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games played, I’m fairly certain that knowledgeable fan would have said hitting .400. Heck, even knowing it’s the wrong answer I might still say .400. It just sounds so much more likely. But to date, it hasn’t happened. Cal Ripken topped Gehrig’s streak in 1995 and the highest anyone has hit since 1941 was George Brett’s .390 in 1980. As late as September 19th, with just 13 games remaining in the season, Brett was hitting .400, but alas, he hit only a meek .304/.370/.674 over the last 13 games, dropping his batting average to .390.

Last year, nobody came close to hitting .400. At the All-Star break, Jose Reyes and Adrian Gonzalez led their respective leagues with identical .354 batting averages, and by the end of the year nobody ended up hitting even .350. Players in 2010 were in the same general vicinity, i.e. not close.

If one can truly flirt with the mark in May (they can’t), David Wright and the aforementioned Josh Hamilton are now. The Mets have played 34 games and Wright has played in 31 of them while the Rangers have played 35 games of which Hamilton has missed just three. Wright has hit .400 on the nose (46 hits in 115 at-bats) and Hamilton has 49 hits in 122 at-bats, for a .402 mark. Can either of them keep it up? Maybe? No? Who knows?

That’s the thing about April and May stats. They bounce all over the place like a little kid in an inflatable house. David Ortiz was hitting .405 on April 30th, but he’s at .345 now. Derek Jeter was hitting .416 on April 24th, fell to .386 on April 27th, then back up to .404 on May 4th. He’s hitting .372 now. Matt Kemp was hitting .404 less than a week ago, on May 8th. He’s hitting .359 now. Fortunately Wright and Hamilton got hot or I would have had to come up with something actually clever to write about.

Even in this slimmer, less power-prone era, the .400 hitter is probably behind us. The evening out of the talent base, the grind of a 162-game season, and the frequency of long, sometimes cross-country flights are just some reasons given for this. In 1941 Williams didn’t travel west of St. Louis all season long. He didn’t face an African-American pitcher, either. The breaking of the color barrier and the increase in baseball’s international talent base has served to raise baseball’s talent floor. So Williams had it a bit easier (though one could counterargue that the increased knowledge of training and health care has off-set at least a bit of that to some degree).

Even though Hamilton and Wright are hitting around .400 now, it’s likely both will end their Septembers below that now-historic mark. That said, you don’t have to be hitting .400 today to finish the season there. On May 14, 1941 Ted Williams went 0-5 against the Chicago White Sox, dropping his batting average to .339. Two days later he’d had just two more hits over his next nine at-bats, which pushed him down to .333. My point: forget Josh Hamilton. If they can keep it up for two more days, Ryan Sweeney and Adam LaRoche are on the Ted Williams pace to to hit .400. 

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Josh Hamilton,  David Wright,  Ted Williams

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